Last night (30 January), members of the Tory Reform Group (TRG) – standard-bearers for the party’s moderate One Nation wing – met at Whitehall’s National Liberal Club as they adjust to the harsh reality of the Conservatives’ post-Liz Truss poll position.
It was an insight into a party that does not know which way to look when it comes to electoral threats – and is simultaneously trying to think of the future while still being mired in battles that voters have long since moved on from.
The backbencher Laura Farris outlined reasons why the Tories “should be really optimistic”, despite being 20 points behind Labour in the polls. She cited Rishi Sunak, reporting there is “curiosity on the doorstep” about him because he doesn’t fit the mould of most Tory leaders. She also argued that some Labour MPs elected in 2017 and 2019 were “cut from the same cloth” as Jeremy Corbyn, saying she believed there was “a deep, deep schism in the Labour Party” that was not being reported.
The Corbyn line proved highly effective for Boris Johnson and the Tories in the run-up to the 2019 election, but despite attempts to tar Keir Starmer with the same brush, it is an attack that no longer resonates. Voters are far more concerned about the economy and cost-of-living crisis than they are with the legacy of the Corbyn project.
Another attempt at optimism came from the employment minister Guy Opperman, who seized the opportunity in his speech to poke fun at whoever brought Andrea Leadsom’s “obviously seminal” politics book as a raffle prize. He also told the tale of when he first stood in an election, in 1997, in the marginal seat of Swindon North. He lost the seat because of Tony Blair’s landslide victory, but added: “We were very complacent in 1997. I do not think we have anything like that complacency now. Everybody understands the enormity of the task.”
Opperman said before the next election that a lot more scrutiny would be applied to Labour, but he talked about the Lib Dems and SNP too, signalling an understanding of the multiple fronts the party would be battling on. There was a “vacuum of ideas”, he said, when it came to the Tories’ opponents, and added that MPs were “desperate” for the “beating centre-right heart of the Conservative Party” to take on the fight and make the case for Sunak.
“Because whatever happens in politics, the TRG stays in the game,” he concluded. “We’re not quitters. We stay in the game, we make the case of centre-right solutions.”
That MPs are trying to rally moderates shows that some of the smarter Tories are keenly aware of how Westminster’s tectonic plates are shifting towards progressives. References to the party’s war on woke were notably absent, and those gathered were probably aware of the splits between left and right in their own ranks.
The speeches showed that Conservative moderates, with an eye on the challenges ahead, are starting to regroup. Whether they actually have the ideas necessary to tackle those challenges is another matter.